Nicholas of Cusa’s apophatic embrace/critique of Islam and the Renaissance

I have been working for a while now on understanding the connection(s) between Cusa’s interactions with Islam, on the one hand, and his critique of Alberti, on the other. This research project has finally culminated in something like an excessively long, clunky abstract for a paper I hope to someday write, which I post here in the hopes of receiving feedback from anyone interested.

My intention in this paper is, in broad strokes, to argue that Cusa’s trinitarian embrace of Qur’anic monotheism and his iconographic critique of one-point perspective are best understood as parallel outworkings of his foundational commitment to Pseudo-Dionysian apophaticism.

In the first case, Cusa situates the Qur’an’s rejection of God’s ‘threeness’ against the apophatic backdrop of Christian trinitarianism: it is entirely true that to say that God is ‘not three,’ explains Cusa, insofar as the Christian God transcends all numerical plurality and schematization. Hence, there is no necessary conflict between Qur’anic monotheism and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; indeed, Christianity not only welcomes the Qur’an’s apophatic censure against tritheism but takes it one step further: just as it is true that God transcends numerical ‘threeness’ (as the Qur’an rightly recognizes), so also is it true that God transcends the limitations of creaturely ‘oneness’ (as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity recognizes). Christianity is thus the religion of apophaticism par excellence, whose God is the coincidentia oppositorum and whose theology is therefore capacious enough to both embrace and exceed that of Islam.

Similarly, Cusa’s understanding of the icon finds room within itself for the one-point perspective of the Western Renaissance (represented here by Alberti). If cataphaticism can be understood, in general terms, as the self-assertion of creaturely perspective, then the artistic technique of one-point perspective — which fictively places the gaze of the observing subject at the center of the picture — can be understood as a distinctively visual mode of cataphatic expression. Just as Qur’anic monotheism is legitimate insofar it is situated within the broader and more apophatic framework of Christian trinitarianism, then, so too is Cusa’s thought is able to accommodate one-point perspective insofar as it ultimately capitulates to the more fundamental and apophatic gaze of the Christian icon (which directs itself toward the observing subject and thus resists her ‘cataphatic’ domination). For Cusa, Albertian perspective is, like Qur’anic monotheism, not so much incorrect as it is internally insufficient.

An illuminating web of intersections opens up here between Cusa, Alberti, and Islam. Cusa evidently shares Islam’s reservations about the ‘cataphatic’ character of one-point perspective, but considers Islamic aniconism an insufficient response to Alberti — that is, an insufficiently apophatic response. Nicholas’ reasoning here is characteristically paradoxical: if true apophaticism consists in the recognition that God is the coincidentia oppositorum — the infinite union of all finite contradictions — then it is not enough to simply deny that God is visible, mutable, material, etc. One must go a step further and admit that God transcends even these denials, i.e., that He is so transcendent as to be not simply ‘wholly other’ (tout autre) but also ‘not other’ (non aliud) to His finite creation. This, for Cusa, is the singular truth communicated definitively by the Incarnation and visualized in the Christian icon: that God stands in analogical relation to creation, and is hence able to incorporate finitude into His own life without forgoing His ‘internal’ infinity. Paradoxically, then, Christian iconography ends up being more apophatic than Islamic aniconism; and insofar as the latter is motivated by genuinely apophatic concerns, the Christian icon in fact ends up being the most authentically Islamic response to Alberti.

As Dr Matthew Milliner pointed out to me, the Cappella Palatina perfectly represents Cusa’s posture toward Islam: The aniconic Arabic arches and muqarnas adorning the chapel’s roof serve as a helpful reminder of divine transcendence, but ultimately give way to the even more apophatic icon of Christ enthroned — the incarnate coincidentia oppositorum.

In sum, then: Nicholas’ approaches to Islamic monotheism and Albertian perspective should both be understood against the backdrop of his apophatic theological vision. And when they are thus understood, it becomes clear that Nicholas finds common cause with Islam in its critique of the Western Renaissance, but also that he considers Christianity the perfect fulfillment of Islamic theology, such that Christianity is — by virtue of its trinitarianism, Christology, and iconodulism — more authentically Islamic than Islam itself.


Cyril O’Regan on the (anti-Dionysian) historical origins of process theology

I have been working through Cyril O’Regan’s old Heterodox Hegel recently, and have been absolutely mesmerized by O’Regan’s ability to situate Hegel within Western theological tradition in all sorts of ways that are simultaneously tremendously significant and tremendously precise. In particular, I found one genealogy O’Regan offers in the book especially striking and worth sharing, by which he traces the roots of Hegelian ‘process theology’ all the way back to fifth century Neoplatonism.

O’Regan begins this genealogy with Proclus, for whom God is to be principally understood as the absolutely transcendent, ineffable, and singular One. It is true that God is ‘differentiated’ triadically into lower orders of reality, but these differentiations possess an ontologically derivative status to God as He is in Himself: God qua the One is in some sense ‘above’ or ‘prior to’ God in his outgoing differentiations.

Roughly one century later, Pseudo-Dionysius transposes Proclus’ theology into a decisively trinitarian key. Dionysius is happy to employ Proclus’ ‘triadic’ language in the service of Christian trinitarianism, but objects to the way Proclus subordinates the divine triads to the One. For the thoroughly orthodox Dionysius, God in Godself is a Trinity of distinct persons; and so, even in apophatic terms, there cannot be a divine One lurking ‘behind’ or ‘above’ the differentiations of Father, Son, and Spirit. To the contrary, God’s transcendent life consists in these very differentiations. While there is room for a conceptual distinction between the Trinity in its economic “processions” and the Trinity in what Dionysius calls its “transcendent hiddenness,” there is surely no room for a divine unity that somehow precedes the trinitarian relations themselves.

According to O’Regan, it is Meister Eckhart who effectively undoes Dionysius’ trinitarian revision of Proclean Neoplatonism. For Eckhart, God as Trinity (Gott) is, in a real sense, distinct from the singular Godhead (Gottheit). Whereas Gott is relational and differential, Gottheit is utterly ineffable, transcendent, and — most importantly — singular. Like the Proclean One, Gottheit transcends all distinctions, differentiations, and cataphatic descriptions (even those of trinitarian dogma). Thus, Gottheit can be understood as the ontological foundation of the trinitarian Gott, which is itself an ‘economic’ manifestation of Gottheit toward, in, and through creation.

In the nineteenth century, Hegel takes Eckhart’s anti-Dionysianism a step further. Hegel operates within Eckhart’s Gott/Gottheit distinction, but dismisses Gottheit as an unintelligible, unnecessary, apophatic fiction. But if Hegel abandons Gottheit, his theology is left with only Gott: that is, with God in his self-manifestation in, through, and to the world. For Hegel, God is thus defined in terms of the world; God in Godself no longer exists.

It is at this point that the Hegelian tendency toward ‘process theology’ begins to rear its head: if there is no ‘God behind His self-manifestation,’ God’s self-manifestation is also always His self-actualization. Every act of God’s in human history is existentially necessary and selfconstituting for God, and the only real sense in which God can be said to exist ‘apart from’ our world is as what O’Regan calls the world’s “narrative prolepsis.” We, our world, and our history are what constitute God’s own life; indeed, phrased more radically, we are God Himself in the process of His journey toward self-discovery and -actualization.

As others have demonstrated, attempts by Hegel and his inheritors to understand God in terms of ‘process’ all too frequently yield theologically incoherent and morally monstrous results. If O’Regan’s genealogy is correct, though, it appears that such theologies may never have been logically or historically necessary in the first place, and could even perhaps have been avoided but for the tradition’s sad, minority neglect of Dionysius’ theology.

Bulgakov and the problem of speculation in modern Orthodoxy

One of the most prominent and (I think) unfortunate characteristics of contemporary Orthodoxy is its zealous opposition to all things ‘speculative.’ Practically speaking, ‘speculative’ functions in this context as a kind of catch-all term, used by Orthodox to dismiss any theological claim not already made by ‘the fathers’ and ratified by ‘Tradition.’ This refusal is especially characteristic of — but certainly not limited to — the online Orthodox community (a community comprised largely of “converts from Evangelicalism who,” much to David Hart’s frustration,”bristle at the thought that Orthodox tradition might be more diverse, indeterminate, and speculatively daring than what they signed on for”).

The problem with this anti-speculative attitude is that it could hardly be less faithful to the fathers themselves, who never suggested — in either word or deed — that the task of theology is limited to the regurgitation of established truths and formulae. On the contrary, the best of the Greek fathers understood ecclesial dogma as the foundation by which the Christian is enabled to explore new speculative terrain without fear.

When Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, offered various “conjectures and similitudes” regarding the relation of the Fall to human gender in De opificio hominis, he was bequeathing to tradition not merely a set of interesting conjectures, but also — far more importantly — an example for later Christians to follow in their own theologizing. And follow it they did: Maximus and John Damascene, to use just two prominent examples, were both emboldened by De opificio hominis to speculate about the Fall and its consequences in even more daring and conjectural ways than Gregory had (in Ambiguum 8 and De fide orthodoxa 2.30, respectively).

But my point here is not simply that saints like Maximus and John felt themselves allowed to speculate on theological matters due to Gregory’s example. Much more radically, they understood themselves to be following Gregory most authentically by speculating in directions he himself had not. Balthasar thus expresses a quite genuinely patristic sentiment when he writes that

Being faithful to tradition most definitely does not consist … of a literal repetition and transmission of the philosophical and theological theses that one imagines lie hidden in time and in the contingencies of history. Rather, being faithful to tradition consists much more of imitating our Fathers in the faith with respect to their attitude of intimation reflection and their effort of audacious creation, which are the necessary preludes to true spiritual fidelity.

And perhaps no modern Orthodox theologian better exemplifies following the fathers in their “effort of audacious creation” than Sergei Bulgakov. Whatever one ultimately makes of his sophiology — whether one finds it veracious or not — there is really no questioning that it is a authentic, 20th-century expression of patristic and Orthodox tradition. It is a carefully (and prayerfully) worked out theological system, offered to the Church by a man of renowned personal sanctity and grounded in the dogmatic formulae of the Councils, the wisdom literature of the Septuagint, the iconographic tradition of the Church, and the writings of the fathers.

Which is to say: in his mature sophiological writings, Bulgakov is doing precisely what Gregory was doing in De opificio hominis, and what Maximus was doing in the Ambigua, and what Dionysius was doing in The Celestial Hierarchy (and so on and so forth). He is speculating, yes, but in a manner wholly licensed by tradition and modeled by the saints.

(For more on all this, and for an introduction to the basic claims of Bulgakovian sophiology, here is a term paper I recently completed on Bulgakov and Byzantine tradition.)


Death and Darwin: A Patristic Approach

I recently wrote a piece on the fathers, the Fall, death, and Darwinism for Almost Orthodoxy. You can access the full article via the link below, or on my Academia page here.


Touches from ash, O wych,
Sting you like scorn!
You, too, brave hollies, twitch
Sidelong from thorn.
Even the rank poplars bear
Illy a rival’s air,
Cankering in black despair
If overborne.
Thomas Hardy, “In a Wood”

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Aquinas and Palamas on the divine essence and energy

In a recent term paper, I argued that Aquinas and Palamas share a noteworthy amount of common ground in their respective understandings of divine simplicity, transcendence, and knowability. I’m not 100% persuaded by every step of my own argument, but I’ve landed on at least one (pretty significant) conclusion with a fair degree of certainty.

Whatever Aquinas is getting at when he speaks of our knowledge of God’s “essence,” he is not suggesting (as so many Orthodox polemicists accuse him of suggesting) that we can know God as God is in Himself. As he quite unambiguously puts it in his Commentary on the Divine Names, “God can be known by us in so far as we know the participations of God’s goodness, but in so far as God is in Godself God is hidden to us” (II.2; emphases mine). For the deeply Dionysian Aquinas, “in so far as it is in itself the first principle is communicated to nothing and thus does not go out from itself” it is wholly beyond knowledge or description (CDN II.2).

Aquinas thus affirms both (1) that God in Godself is absolutely unknowable and (2) that God is truly knowable in his processions toward creation. It’s therefore tremendously misleading (if not outright dishonest) for Orthodox apologists to claim that “whereas for the East God is beyond knowing, Aquinas regards Him as the highest intelligible object.” For Aquinas (as for Palamas, Damascene, Dionysius, Maximus, and the Cappadocians), God is knowable insofar as he deigns to be knowable, and unknowable insofar as he dwells in what Dionysius calls his “transcendent hiddenness.”

This raises serious questions about what exactly Aquinas means by the term essentia, since he evidently doesn’t mean by it (at least his commentary on Dionysius) what Palamas means by ousia: namely, God in Godself. To honestly and responsibly bring Palamas’ ousia-energeia distinction into conversation with Aquinas’ conception of divine simplicity, one would need to begin by wrestling with these terminological questions — not by assuming that since they’re both translated “essence” in English, ousia and essentia function identically in Aquinas’ and Palamas’ respective theologies.

I’m in way over my head here, and don’t feel great about my paper. But what all this makes more or less totally clear to me is that East-West theological dialogue should be terminological before it’s dogmatic, since, as David Bentley Hart notes,

In any modern engagement between Christian East and Christian West … we begin from very different theological grammars, and with terminologies that can achieve only proximate correspondences … [In] order to understand another intellectual tradition, rooted in a different primary language, it is not enough to translate its terms into one’s own dialect and then proceed to interpret them according to the rules of one’s own tradition.

Maximus the Confessor on Theosis

Beyond mind and reflection and knowledge, [the soul] comes to be without thought, without knowledge, without words, and it simply rushes forward to throw itself into the embrace of God and to be one with him. It thinks no more, it imagines God no more. For God is not an object of knowledge, whom the soul can objectify by some pattern of behavior; rather, it knows him through simple union, without comparisons and beyond thought — in a way that cannot be uttered or explained, and which only he knows who shares this unspeakable gift with his chosen ones: God himself. (Quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, pg. 93)

More on T.S. Eliot as the solution to American literature

I argued sloppily in my last post that the bulk of canonical American literature is devoted to diagnosing a single perennial problem (viz. the loss of transcendence in American consciousness), and that Eliot effectively solves this problem in his Four Quartets. For anyone interested, I’ve written more about this subject here (with regard to the ways Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and Wharton’s Age of Innocence present the world in purely immanent terms) and also here (with regard to the ways Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury and James’ Beast in the Jungle present temporality in purely chronological terms). Many of the insights of these papers, I should acknowledge, I received directly from Roger Lundin.

And since I’m on this Eliot binge, here’s a blurb from Russell Kirk on the Four Quartets:

Eliot was not ignorant of the strength of convictions contrary to his own; nor did he commence with prejudices. In Four Quartets, he does not assume the prophet afflatus: instead, he opens to inspection all the doubts and difficulties of his position, with a candor seldom encountered. Over a quarter of a century, he had been searching; he had come to certain beliefs by experience of life, by reading of books, and by much exchange with other minds of his time. What Eliot offers in this last and most meditated of his long poems is a picture of the insights he had obtained.

These insights may be accepted or rejected; but it is not well to reject or to accept them from ignorance or prejudice. Here a powerful intellect and an earnest conscience regard ultimate questions. Of course one may sweep aside all such questions as irrelevant to this life of the senses. But such an unexamined life is not worth living; and besides, while an individual may survive in disregard of all such questions, any society that ignores ultimate questions must find its tenure nasty and short.

And, in closing, here’s Eliot’s own description of his intellectual journey:

The Christian thinker—and I mean the man who is trying consciously and conscientiously to explain to himself the sequence which culminates in faith, rather than the public apologist—proceeds by rejection and elimination. He finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory; among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world, and especially for the world within; and thus, by what Newman calls ‘powerful and concurrent’ reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation. To the unbeliever, this method seems disingenuous and perverse: for the unbeliever is, as a rule, not so greatly troubled to explain the world to himself, nor so greatly distressed by its disorder; nor is he generally concerned (in modern terms) to ‘preserve values.’ He does not consider that if certain emotional states, certain development of character, and what in the highest sense can be called ‘saintliness’ are inherently and by inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory explanation of the world must be an explanation which will admit the ‘reality’ of those values.